Based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting Of Hill
House (adapted by David Self), this film is about four people
who enter a huge, supposedly haunted mansion to participate in
a study on insomnia. Dr. Jeffrey Marrow (Liam Neeson), who is
really studying the effects of fear, lies to his three subjects
because "you don't tell the rats they're in a maze."
We first meet Eleanor (Lili Taylor), a mousy, shy woman who has
spent her life caring for her domineering mother. Eleanor feels
the need for adventure, for something interesting to happen to
her, and she thinks the spooky mansion is a perfect place to start.
Then we have Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a worldly bisexual who's
up for anything involving risk and/or sexual experimentation.
And third is Luke (Owen Wilson), a wisecracking surfer type who
has little belief in haunted mansions and the like.
The foursome arrive at the mansion, whose architecture and
furnishings seem to be designed solely for the purpose of being
creepy (no one would ever want to live in such a house
of horrors), and meet its caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Dudley (Bruce
Dern and Marian Seldes). The Dudleys make no pretense at cordiality,
and Seldes plays the old lady like a comic role, being unnecessarily
spooky in her delivery. But our dream-seekers are undaunted, and
the two ladies are actually enamored by the place. As they begin
taking their psychological tests, weird things start happening,
mostly to Eleanor. She hears noises. She sees faces. Her expression
in the mirror does not exactly mirror her expression. At this
point in the film, the creepiness is actually rather effective
(although the acting is consistently bad), because de Bont's approach
is more subtle, like the Wise production. But then all hell breaks
Scenes of all hell breaking loose are something de Bont prides
himself on, and as usual he goes totally overboard. The audience
reaction goes from startled gasps to jeering laughter to longing
glances at the exit. During the last 20 minutes of film, the horror
derives from the fact that it's still not over yet. I have
no idea how such an accomplished actor as Neeson got roped into
this dog, but he surely must have trouble sleeping, and not because
of things that go bump in the night. Except maybe his career.
The one thing I enjoyed immensely about this movie is the set decoration. The interiors of the house (when they aren't heaving with some monster's face) are astoundingly beautiful; one would love to explore such a mansion, especially if it was purported to have spectral residents. But the setting should not pull focus away from the storyline, and I couldn't help wishing the actors would just shut up and let me look at the set. **
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